On March 26, the newest faculty member in our Mechanical Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, Dr. Woodrow W. Winchester III, lectured at Gonzaga University on “Afrofuturism as a Design Lens for Inclusive Technological Innovation” during the Gonzaga Student Body Association’s Intersectionality Week. A press release issued by Gonzaga reported that Winchester talked about how to address racial biases in the design and engineering of technological products and systems such as soap dispensers that only recognize pale hands, facial recognition sensors that can’t see dark faces, or health-tech gadgets that won’t sense a pulse through black skin.
“It's my intention to motivate, just continue deeper thought around these sorts of issues, and begin to think about intersectionality and how it fits around STEM, how we can play in the sandbox together,” said Winchester during his lecture, as reported in the Gonzaga release. “What we’re trying to accomplish, at the end of the day, is to make the world a better place.”
Winchester comes at these issues from his current position as an associate professor of engineering management at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, as well as an engineering educator and advocate for more inclusive approaches to the design and engineering of technological products and systems. He will be arriving at the UMass MIE department in September as the Director of Engineering Management.
Before serving at Robert Morris, Winchester was an associate professor and systems engineering program coordinator at Kennesaw State University, an associate professor of systems engineering at Southern Polytechnic State University, and a professor of industrial engineering at Virginia Tech for eight years.
The Gonzaga article noted that Winchester is advancing the use of “speculative design” in new product development (NPD) processes as a means to enable the engineer, as a technology designer, to more deeply and critically reflect on notions of diversity and inclusion in design and development activities. Speculative design is helping the engineer better understand if a given design direction or solution excludes certain groups or disadvantages them in some way.
Winchester argues that, by ignoring immediate marketplace demands and focusing specifically on an end-user’s perspective, speculative design enables future forward design thinking and more inclusive and consequential NPD decision-making; leading, often, to more innovative near-term solutions.
During his lecture, Winchester brought up the film Black Panther as an example of both speculative design and Afrofuturism – exploring black identity and culture through imaginative possibilities such as science fiction. By speculating what African technology would be like without colonialism, the popular Marvel Universe film took a conceptual approach that focused on what its characters would want and need.
“It’s putting these often-disenfranchised voices up front and central,” Winchester said in the Gonzaga article.
Winchester’s research and teaching interests are focused on advancing the much needed integration of diversity and inclusion into engineering processes, research, and management.
His current project, “Art+Engineering: Towards the Humanistic Technologist,” explores a role for speculative art in aiding the technology designer to more deeply reflect on design decisions. The implications and repercussions on communities of color illustrate this trajectory of work.
Funded by Pittsburgh’s Office of Public Art through The Heinz Endowments, this effort was detailed in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. (May 2019)